Historically, African-American women have served in dual roles as both firestarters and fire extinguishers. However, the eyes of society still light up when we see an African-American woman who has chosen the career path as a firefighter. 

The reality is that women have played a major role in the fire service ever since the 1800s when an enslaved Black woman named Molly Williams served as a volunteer firefighter in New York City a volunteer with the Oceanus Fire Company #11 around 1815. Williams was the first known Black female firefighter in the U.S.

Williams’ was held as a slave belonging to a New York City merchant by the name of Benjamin Aymar who was associated with the Oceanus Engine Company #1, she was called Volunteer No. 11. 

Williams made a distinguished presence in her sturdy work clothes of calico dress and checked apron and was said to be “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.”  Her service was noted particularly during the 1818 blizzard when male firefighters were falling sick due to an influenza outbreak; however, Williams stepped up alongside the men on the drag ropes and pulled the pumper to the fire through the harsh snow.

On April 1, 1963,16 African-American firefighters joined the Atlanta Fire Department at Station 16. Fourteen years later, Atlanta’s first seven African-American female firefighters, hired in 1977: Louvenia Jenkins, Emma C. Morris, Janice Jones, Liz R. Summers, Lisa Bradley, Shelia Callaway, and Sheila Kirkland.

Summers was later promoted to Battalion Chief.  As, retired Battalion Chief, she said, “I left a legacy. I paved the way for the other women, other minorities, not just women,” 

Emma C. Morris was the first female driver for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. 

“As a community, it is important to see women represented in the fire department,” said Jason Hudgins, the president of Westview Community Organization. “When the demographics of the department reflect the community it creates a deeper bond that has tangible benefits. There are members of the community who may connect with a female firefighter or a black firefighter, etc. just because that person‘s presence makes them feel more comfortable. That connection has the ability to literally save someone’s life.”

Today, African American women play a significant role in the fire service nationwide–although women only make up four percent of the nation’s 400,000 firefighters are female. In a 2018 NFPA report, 93,700 (8 percent) of the firefighters were female. 

Of the career firefighters, 15,200 (4 percent) were female firefighters. There were 78,500 volunteer firefighters who were female, which was 11 percent of the total number of volunteer firefighters; that percentage becomes even lower when race is a factor. 

At present, there are only two African American women serving as fire chiefs in fire departments across the country. 

 “Women are critical to shaping the culture within our workforce both in public and private sectors,” Antonio Brown, Atlanta City Councilman District 3. “We must create an equitable space for women to thrive and prosper without feeling inferior to men. They are no longer important but actually critical to the success of our future workforce. We cannot continue to operate in this place of complacency where we normalize the continued discriminatory practices underlining the institution of our public and private sectors.” 

Fast forward 25 years later, Ret. East Point Fire Rescue Fire Chief Rosemary R. Cloud became the first female fire chief in the country, having been hired as fire chief of the City of East Point on May 6, 2002, until she retired in January 2015. Starting her career in her native home city Atlanta, Cloud also served as assistant chief of fire operations at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Fire Chief Toni Washington currently serves as one of two female Fire chiefs in the country for the City of Decatur, Georgia. In January 2009, Washington became the first African American and first female to serve as the city’s Fire Chief/Emergency Manager. She began her public safety career at the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and then transferred to a Metro Atlanta fire department where she worked her way to the position of Deputy Fire Chief.

Deputy Chief Vera Morrison of Decatur Fire Rescue served with Fire Chief Toni Washinton as a crucial member of the only all-woman fire command staff in the country—some would argue, the world. Morrison held the ranks of firefighter, apparatus operator, captain, and battalion chief. 

Assistant Fire Chief Valerie Jackson of The City of Atlanta Fire Department has served the City of Atlanta for 22 years. 

Fire Chief Marian McDaniel of Rockdale County Fire Rescue became fire chief on Jan. 1, making her the first African-American and female fire chief in department history and only the 12th African-American female chief in the nation. She has worked in the fire service for 22 years. She served 19 years with the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, working her way up from firefighter to captain before retiring. In 2017, she joined Rockdale County Fire Rescue as deputy chief of administration.

Captain Andrea Hall became the first African American female firefighter to serve as a captain in The City of South Fulton Fire-Rescue Department. Recently, Hall was chosen to deliver the Pledge of Allegiance at the 46th Presidential inauguration. However, Hall made history long before Jan. 21; in 2004, she became the first African American woman in Fulton county’s history to be promoted to the rank of Fire Captain.

Fire Captain Dr. Tajhiek Anwar Baoll became the First Female and First Black Fire Lieutenant Engine 10 in 2017 and First Black female and female Fire Captain of Engine 6 – 2019. Taj also serves as a paramedic for her native City of Atlanta, in addition to roles as a farmer, an agricultural buff, and birthing doula.

“My homegirl, Taj Anwar is a doula who happens to be a firefighter,” Bem Joiner,  co-founder of Atlanta Influences Everything. “She once told me that in the life as a firefighter can go from 0-60 at any point and that she brings she uses her motherly doula energy to bring peace to situations that are extremely intense and volatile with the mindset of peace that women, mothers, and even doulas can bring to a situation while simultaneously doing the work…”

Dr. Taj Anwar Baoll of Atlanta Fire & Rescue made history when she became the first female commander of Engine 10 in 2017 and on Engine 6 in 2019. (Photo: Taj Anwar Baoll)

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